Important to recognize signs of stress, burnout, compassion fatigue; provide self-care, social support and purpose.

Ann Hess, Content Director

August 25, 2022

7 Min Read
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According to the National Center for Health Statistics, as of May 2022, the self-reported rates for anxiety and depression related symptoms among U.S. adults remains almost three times higher than they were in 2019. Liquor sales are skyrocketing while fentanyl-related overdoses continue to climb, and there is record spending on gambling.

According to Dr. David Brown, a behavioral state specialist for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, prior to the pandemic, Iowa gaming revenue grew at an annual rate of 1.4%. Since casinos reopened in the state, revenue has grown at 8.1%.

"People are spending more money on gambling and alcohol," Brown says. "That's how some individuals try to manage the symptoms of our anxiety and depression that we're seeing."

With a program emphasis on farm stress management, mental health outreach, mental health literacy and suicide prevention, Brown shared ways anxiety and depression can spill over into the workplace and how to self-care and provide support during the recent Iowa Swine Day in Ames.

"Number one, if you're the manager, then you may start seeing some of these signs in some of your employees. You may have to involve yourself or direct that person maybe to EAP [Employee Assistance Program] or whatever, but you may have to get involved," Brown says. "Now, fortunately, most of these signs are short term. That means we've had a really bad day and get a good night's sleep and they go away the next day. But sometimes those signs are related to chronic stress and they might need to be addressed."

Brown refers to those "bad days" as acute stress reactions or normal stress, and while our bodies can manage stress on a short-term basis, they cannot manage stress long term. Then it becomes a chronic stress response.

"As stress continues, we start to see elevated blood pressure. We start to see fatigue, helplessness. We start to see a greater amount of sleep and appetite disturbance. We'll also become more forgetful and then we may have some gastrointestinal issues that start impacting your body when stress becomes more chronic," Brown says. "Finally, all of that causes so much wear and tear on the body, if the stress continues, we start seeing other things. We start to see heart attacks, stroke, that elevated blood pressure over a long period of time, that can lead to heart attack, stroke, which can lead to weight gain, diabetes and deterioration of the immune system."

While burnout is similar to chronic stress, individuals with burnout do not see an end to the level of stress that they're under and they don't see how anything's going to change.

"They dread going to work because they don't see an end, they don't see how it's going to be fixed. And it's related to where you work, it's site specific," Brown says. "It's related to work conditions that are adverse, including long hours, high demands and a very high workload that continues on and on."

Employees experiencing burnout will show many signs of chronic stress, but also signs of exhaustion, cynicism and reduced personal accomplishment. Employers may observe more job dissatisfaction, absenteeism or presenteeism, where the employee may physically be at work, but mentally not. The signs of burnout are gradual.

When it comes to burnout and farming, Brown says researchers have found several distinct factors that can lead to the condition such as:

  • Lack of time

  • Uncontrollable events – weather, machine breakdown, etc.

  • Conflict with an associate or family members

  • Uncertainty about future financial markets

  • Agricultural legislation

  • Physical isolation

  • Financial worry

  • Succession planning

To manage burnout in employees, Brown says companies and individuals need to focus on improving self-care, social support and purpose. Make sure employees are taking time off and have a good work-life balance, encourage a social support system at work and provide opportunities for professional development and cross training.

"All those things can help manage the burnout system," Brown says. "If those don't get fixed, what are the employees going to do? They're going to find someplace else to work. Because if the employer and the employee cannot come to an understanding, with the work market we have currently, they're going to find someplace else to go."

While Brown acknowledges the "Great Resignation" has occurred since the pandemic with —Boomers deciding to retire, employees choosing to leave toxic workplaces and individuals not able to find childcare — he says there are individuals that are just looking for a better place to work.

"If some of this is not managed in the work environment, people will find someplace else to work, and they'll make that decision and go, and losing employees all the time is costly and inefficient for any business that's out there," Brown says.

Another key stress response employers may observe in employees is compassion fatigue. According to expert Charles Figley, "compassion fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress and can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper."

Brown says typically compassion fatigue shows up in the livestock arena during a disease epidemic, where a depopulation occurs. Signs include withdrawal, numbness, isolation, hypervigilance, sleep problems, tearfulness, exhaustion, emotional reactivity, avoidance and/or obsession, absenteeism, diminished sense of career enjoyment, decrease in the quality of care and decreased feelings of empathy.

One of the key things about compassion fatigue is it can be greatly helped by good self-care, Brown says.

"Self-care is probably the foremost thing you can do, to not only manage chronic stress, but also manage burnout," Brown says. "Getting a good night sleep and making sure you get at least 30 minutes of exercise per day, is an amazing way to manage your self-care."

Other self-care tips include:

  • Healthy eating

  • Spiritual practice, prayer and solitude

  • Meditation, mindfulness, journaling and deep breathing

  • Intentional planning

Social support also needs to happen in individuals' personal lives as well. Find individuals, whether that be a spouse, family, friends or neighbors, who you trust to share thoughts and feelings. Go on a date. Make social time. Join a group.

Individuals, who are already having problems with work-life balance, may find it difficult to find time to volunteer, but Brown says the positive feelings from volunteering and helping others balances work life.

"It includes social support as well, but I suggest volunteering. It could be simple, maybe even giving out some extra donations or things like that," Brown says. "Do some things you need to do to help someone else is a big part of having a purpose in your life beyond work."

Self-care also involves moving toward goals, such as saving money for vacation/retirement or setting up a physical with a primary care physician. It's also important to remember that you are more than your occupation.

"Whatever your job is, we can be more than that. We can be a school board member, we can be a church committee member, we can be on Rotary club, we can be at Kiwanis," Brown says. "We can do other things than our job, and again, that brings balance into our life and adds additional energy to our work life."

If you're going to volunteer, Brown says make sure it's something different than your job. Also embrace a positive attitude by trying to keep things in perspective, accepting change and having gratitude.

Brown suggests examining what types of self-care you are currently practicing. Is there something you could do more? Are you doing the right things? What types of self-care practices would improve your resiliency? For managers, what can you do a little bit more of at work to help your employees become more resilient?

Other things to consider are the changes in the workplace over the last two years. What is harder or what is easier in your work site? What strategy resonates most with you? What strategy do you want to improve upon or implement? How might you share some of these strategies in your work site?

"Better self-care, getting better night sleep, exercise, social network … how can you build on some of that at your work site to make it more resiliency focused for your employees?" Brown says. "Because if you don't, they're going to go someplace else."

The 11th annual Iowa Swine Day was held June 30 at Iowa State University. More information on the conference and sponsors can be found here. Videos and presentation files for many of the plenary and concurrent sessions can be found on the Iowa Pork Industry Center YouTube channel.

About the Author(s)

Ann Hess

Content Director, National Hog Farmer

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